A Flathead County judge on Dec. 28 rejected the terms of a plea agreement that would have allowed a 48-year-old Martin City man to avoid prison time for a fatal shooting last April, setting the stage for a Jan. 7 homicide trial during which defense attorneys plan to mount a case of self-defense.
James William Quen appeared for the scheduled change-of-plea hearing before Judge Heidi Ulbricht planning on admitting to fatally shooting Bradley Allen Winters, 33, on April 25, 2018. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors were prepared to amend the deliberate homicide charge to felony negligent homicide and recommend a 10-year suspended sentence.
But Ulbricht announced at the outset of the hearing that she wouldn’t accept the recommended sentence, pointing to Quen’s checkered criminal history that includes a felony grand theft conviction, assorted violent offenses and a bench-warrant arrest for failing to appear at a court-ordered hearing in a separate felony case.
“I want to inform the parties that I am rejecting the plea-agreement’s sentencing recommendations,” Ulbricht told defense attorney Brian Smith and Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner, prompting a brief recess while the parties hammered out an alternative. “The court at this juncture cannot ignore the defendant’s history and disregard for the judicial process.”
Ulbricht said she was also swayed by allegations discussed at an earlier bond hearing that were under investigation at one time in Flathead County but were never prosecuted. That information included an instance in which Quen allegedly fired more than 40 rounds of ammunition into a house.
Smith said the allegations are unfounded.
Acknowledging that the court is not bound by sentencing recommendations contained in a plea agreement, Smith asked Ulbricht to wait until a pre-sentencing investigation had been completed before making a firm decision about whether to accept the suspended sentence.
Had she allowed the change-of-plea hearing to proceed and still imposed a harsher sentence, Quen would have been allowed to withdraw his plea.
In scrapping the plea agreement and change-of-plea, Smith said he is prepared to go to trial and plans on building a case for an affirmative defense, meaning he’ll call on witnesses to testify that Quen shot Winters in self-defense.
However, a key witness in the case, the victim’s brother, was scheduled for a deposition on the morning of Dec. 28 and failed to appear, Smith said, despite the brother having been served a subpoena for a sworn statement.
Ahner told Ulbricht that he did not intend to file an amended complaint immediately, but could still go to trial on a lesser charge, such as negligent homicide, depending on the outcome of ongoing negotiations with Smith. An amended complaint would require the court’s approval.
According to court documents, deputies responded to the scene of a shooting in Hungry Horse at about 11:40 p.m. on April 25. Upon arrival they found Winters dead from a single gunshot wound from a .38-caliber revolver. The initial investigation revealed there had been an altercation over money and clothing outside Winters’ home and at some point Quen reportedly furnished a gun. Quen allegedly fired the gun multiple times, hitting Winters once in the chest.
Sheriff’s deputies apprehended Quen at his Martin City home about an hour after the shooting.
Quen remains incarcerated at the Flathead County Detention Center.
Smith took on the case after Quen’s previous attorneys, Alisha Backus and Greg Rapkoch, stepped away from the case because of a conflict of interest.
Smith said he believes the evidence will show that his client acted in self-defense, and stressed the importance of tracking down the victim’s brother, who Smith says started the altercation that ultimately turned fatal.
“We think we have a pretty good case,” Smith said.
The attorneys will submit jury instructions on Dec. 31.